Sweet and juicy, watermelons are popular with people around the world. The variety that makes an appearance at picnics and in fruit salads is only one of seven species of watermelon, however. The other six are wild species and are not so palatable since they are characterized by pale, hard, and bitter fruits.

A group of researchers has conducted a comprehensive genomic analysis of all seven species, leading to the development of a new resource that may enable breeders to cultivate tasty, appealing watermelons that are also more disease-resistant and that can be grown in more varied climates—a  benefit that promises to be particularly useful given the impact of climate change. They reported on their findings in a paper published earlier this month in Nature Genetics.

The analysis had two parts. First the scientists created an improved version of a “reference genome,” which is used by breeders to identify new versions of genes, according to a press release from the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), where Zhangjun Fei, who co-led the project, is a faculty member. (Boyce Thompson is an independent plant science research institute affiliated with Cornell University.) The researchers next sequenced the genomes of 414 watermelons and compared their genomes to the reference genome and to one another, which provided them with insights into how watermelons evolved. As watermelons were bred for improved sweetness and a redder color, they lost some of their ability to resist diseases and respond to other stressors, according to Fei.

“The sweet watermelon has a very narrow genetic base,” noted Amnon Levi in the BTI press release. Levi is a watermelon breeder with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and co-author of the study. “But there is a wide genetic diversity among the wild species, which gives them great potential to contain genes that provide them tolerance to pests and environmental stresses.

“Watermelon is susceptible to many tropical diseases and pests, whose ranges are expected to continue to expand along with climate change,” Levi continued. “We want to see if we can bring back some of these wild disease resistance genes that were lost during domestication.

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